On the business world’s biggest stages, Strother Gaines is determined to play himself

Strother Gaines

Once upon a time, Strother Gaines took his place on a red carpet, inside Washington D.C.’s Sidney Harman Hall.

The lights came up, offering a glimpse of a figure in jeans, a gray suit jacket and a brown, wooden bowtie, rendered almost invisible by a long, burly black beard.

“Storytelling connects us,” Gaines told the audience at TEDxMidAtlantic 2016. “If we are, in fact, designed for storytelling, it stands true that we probably like people who tell stories.”

Public speaking was a relatively new chapter for Gaines—at least formally. He had been around stages and soliloquies almost his entire life. But at a specialized workshop on the subject (which he describes in his TED Talk) something clicked.

“There’s a skillset that I find lacking in the business world and it’s a skillset that is overwhelmingly present in the artistic world,” Gaines explained in an interview. “You have people who are creative thinkers, who are confident in presenting ideas, who are public speakers, who create these wonderfully moving, empathetic, artistic things—and they make no money. There’s still this stereotype that they’re flighty artists and wouldn’t survive in this kind of [corporate] environment and we can’t trust them or those skills don’t translate.”

Through an MBA from the Daniels College of Business, Gaines wants to change that perception—and further intertwine his identity with his career.

A “hummingbird career”

Gaines grew up in rural Harlan County, Kentucky, a Queer kid in a conservative environment. He earned a theater degree and flittered between a number of careers, from regional director of a primary care practice to sales consultant to massage therapist to Segway tour guide.

He calls it a “hummingbird career”: a term he borrowed from author Elizabeth Gilbert. The diverse portfolio of varied, albeit short, experiences has been great for feeding his interests and building his skillset. But it’s been less attractive on a resume.

The Denver MBA, he said, is a way to tie his many experiences together and put him in a position to change the business world from the inside.

A voice for the LGBTQ+ community

Gaines realizes he has it easier than a lot of other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. He can unpaint his fingernails, hide his piercings and “pass” as a straight man. But he’s still acutely aware of his minority status in the classroom and the world’s boardrooms, he said—not to mention the microaggressions and macroaggressions he experiences regularly.

It’s why Gaines pushed Daniels to partner with Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), a nonprofit that aims to educate, inspire and unify LGBTQ+ MBA students and alumni.

Alicia Lucero, assistant director of graduate admissions, said joining ROMBA is consistent with the College’s goal for MBA students: encouraging them to create, find and connect with their respective communities. Gaines has been the perfect person to lead the initiative, she added.

Personally, I’ve gained a great colleague, friend, and continue to learn from Strother, while his labor and contributions to our Daniels space have been immense,” Lucero said. “I look forward to seeing the positive impact he will bring to industry as an alum, while we will continue to strengthen our partnership with ROMBA on our Daniels admissions front.”

As the College’s inaugural ROMBA fellow, Gaines serves as an ambassador to the Daniels LGBTQ+ community. Off campus, he has the opportunity to attend conferences and retreats for networking and education.

“As a non-traditional MBA in lots of ways, seeing other Queer folk doing this was helpful,” Gaines said. “It’s lonely and that’s the whole reason ROMBA was formed.”

He plans to advocate for assistance for others with marginalized identities—those who may be estranged from their families because of who they are, resulting in a lack of familial and financial support.

“I think that progress looks like having people with diverse backgrounds at the decision-making table,” he said. “When you give them a space to have sway and influence, that’s how you dismantle structures that disproportionately affect marginalized identities. As we see people at a leadership level, in particular, with these identities, I think that’s the most impactful progress.”

Merging theater and therapy 

A few years ago, inside an abandoned underground trolley tunnel, Gaines watched with glee as a crowd of “Type-A Washington D.C. people turned into these excited, kid-like, playful people.”

They had shown up to see a play but found that they were part of it. Gaines realized the power of “immersive theater” that night, where members of the audience have roles (like a “friend of the family” or a “member of the resistance”), interact with the cast, solve puzzles and even influence the plot.

It inspired Gaines to begin researching the way an actor’s character can “bleed” into the real world.

“I’m interested in exploring: Can we create that feeling intentionally and positively?” he said. “Can I help people who struggle in social settings feel more comfortable because they played an outgoing character in an immersive experience or a tabletop role-playing game.”

Ultimately, those questions led Gaines to concurrently pursue a master’s degree from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. In July, he will bring the idea to BASE Camp, Entrepreneurship@DU’s startup accelerator, where he hopes to flesh out the details for a new business, Theraplay.

The concept is a combination of group therapy, one-on-one therapy and acting, where characters can “try on” decisions and experiences in a low-stakes (or no-stakes) environment. Actions may have consequences in the fictional moment, Gaines explained, but it doesn’t impact the actor’s real world. If anything, it gives them fodder to think about how it may play out off stage.

“I’m a unicorn, dammit”

Gaines has played plenty of roles throughout his theatrical and professional careers. These days, in the business world, he’s just trying to play himself—and encouraging others to do the same.

“I think we’re moving into understanding that identity is an inextricable part of how you show up in a business environment,” he said. “The more comfortable you get being [yourself], the more likely you are to find yourself in a role that’s actually what you want, the more likely you’ll be to create something you’re proud of, the more likely you are to have the people around you that you want to be around you.”

The name of his consulting and coaching business is an anything-but-subtle nod to that outlook. “But I’m a Unicorn, Dammit” is about leaning into each individual’s unique identity, empowering them to get where they want to go.

Ultimately, Gaines hopes they end up in traditional corporate settings—environments that haven’t historically been the most heterogeneous.

“I want people to see the value of having people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and upbringings making decisions and in leadership positions and actively being involved in the conversation,” he said. “My hope for the future is that we find ways to empower and elevate those voices rather than making them work extra for it.”